U.S. President Barack Obama said Saturday that the United States “should take military action against Syrian targets” over its alleged use of chemical weapons, but added that he will seek congressional authorization for the move.
In a televised address from the White House Rose Garden, the president appealed for congressional leaders to consider their responsibilities and values in debating U.S. military action over Syria’s alleged chemical weapons use. “Today I’m asking Congress to send a message to the world that we are united as one nation,” he said.
Obama’s remarks came shortly after U.N. inspectors left Syria carrying evidence that will determine whether chemical weapons were used in an attack last week in a Damascus suburb.
“The aim of the game here, the mandate, is very clear — and that is to ascertain whether chemical weapons were used — and not by whom,” U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky told reporters on Saturday.
“It needs time to be able to analyze the information and the samples,” Nesirky said.
He noted that U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has said there is no alternative to a political solution to the crisis in Syria. “A military solution is not an option,” he said.
But Obama proposed a limited military action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. “This attack is an assault on human dignity,” the president said Saturday, referring to the toxic gas assault. “It also presents a serious danger to our national security; it risks making a mockery of the global prohibition on the use of chemical weapons.”
He worried aloud that a failure to respond with force “could lead to escalating use of chemical weapons or their proliferation to terrorist groups who would do our people harm. In a world with many dangers, this menace must be confronted.”
Any military attack would be neither open-ended nor include U.S. ground forces, he said.
Obama said he had spoken earlier Saturday with the four congressional leaders, and that they had agreed to schedule a debate when Congress returns to Washington September 9.
Though he said he believes he has the authority to carry out military action without specific congressional authorization, he was seeking it because “I know that the country will be stronger if we take this course of action and our actions will be even more effective. We should have this debate because our interests are too big for business as usual.”
The inspectors will share their findings with Ban, who has said he wants to wait until the U.N. team’s final report is completed before presenting it to the U.N. Security Council — which could take a week.
Ban met Saturday with Angela Kane, the world body’s high representative for disarmament affairs, for more than an hour, Nesirky said.
Syria’s prime minister appeared unfazed by the saber-rattling. “The Syrian Army’s status is on maximum readiness and fingers are on the trigger to confront all challenges,” Wael Nader al-Halqi said Saturday during a meeting with a delegation of Syrian expatriates from Italy, according to a banner on Syria State TV that was broadcast prior to Obama’s address.
Planning for a possible military response is well under way in Washington. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Vice President Joe Biden and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin E. Dempsey were all at the White House Saturday morning.
The Syrian government has denied that it used chemical weapons in the August 21 attack, saying that jihadists fighting with the rebels used them in an effort to turn global sentiments against it.
British intelligence had put the number of people killed in the attack at more than 350.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Friday cited a death toll of 1,429, more than 400 of them children. No explanation was offered for the discrepancy.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said rockets carrying chemical payloads landed in areas held by Syria’s own troops. Why would his government gas its own soldiers? he asked.
Not true, Kerry said Friday.
“We know rockets came only from regime-controlled areas and went only to opposition-controlled or contested neighborhoods,” he said.
He cited a U.S. intelligence report in alleging that the attacks were well planned.
“We know that for three days before the attack, the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons personnel were on the ground in the area, making preparations,” Kerry said. “And we know that the Syrian regime elements were told to prepare for the attack by putting on gas masks and taking precautions associated with chemical weapons.”
The assertion that the Syrian government used chemical weapons “is utter nonsense,” Russian President Vladimir Putin told reporters in the far eastern city of Vladivostok on Saturday, state media reported.
Then, in remarks directed at Obama as a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Putin said, “Think about future victims in Syria.”
He told the Russian state news agency Ria Novosti that he had seen no proof that al-Assad’s government was behind any chemical weapons attacks.
“If they say that the governmental forces used weapons of mass destruction… and that they have proof of it, let them present it to the U.N. inspectors and the Security Council,” Putin said.
“Claims that the proof exists, but is classified and cannot be presented to anybody are below criticism,” Putin said. “This is plain disrespect for their partners.”
Putin said he was hoping to take up the matter with Obama during the upcoming G20 summit in Russia’s Saint Petersburg on September 5-6.
A year ago, Obama said that such an attack by the Syrian regime would cross a “red line,” which he would not tolerate, but as he mulls military options, he is facing resistance.
Russia, which has a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, has said it would block any measure that includes military force against its ally, Syria.
Obama accused the council of being unable to “move in the face of a clear violation of international norms.”
Britain’s Parliament has voted against joining any coalition.
But Kerry brushed off the vote, saying that the United States “makes our own decisions on our own time lines, based on our values and our interests.”